Sunday, December 31, 2006

Happy New Year!

HourglassI looked at my countdown counter this morning and it told me that I have only this one day before my life enters its new chapter. In fact, looking below the big "1 day" read out, I see a smaller readout which says 8:09:22, ... 21, ... 20. A little more than eight hours.

So, what am I feeling right now? Well, I'm pretty darned excited, to tell the truth. It's bound to be an interesting year. I've got my list of 101 goals for 2007 (from which I've already been completing things). I can't wait to see what I can accomplish. I'm a little scared, too. It's a big step to go off on my own. If I let my mind wander, I can conjure up all sorts of catastrophes. Let's not go there, shall we?

In a few hours, Lisa and I are heading out to visit friends for the evening. We'll cap off the year with good conversation, maybe a game or two, champaign, and, of course, watching five minutes of TV so we can see the ball come down over NYC.

Tomorrow morning, the adventure begins.

Drive safe and have a wonderful new year!

So, what are your plans for the evening?

1 day.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Notable Notes

Google Notebook LogoI read somewhere that when you have a good idea, you must capture it quickly. You have about 37 seconds before it is lost in the general clutter of day-to-day life. Of course, I've also read that 76.4 percent of all statistics are made up, so I don't know how accurate that 37 seconds really is. I do know that I probably drop a lot of good ideas. How many? I haven't a clue. I usually only remember that I had them when I happen to have them again, so, assuming I have, on average 14.3 good ideas for every one that I actually remember, well, you do the math.

Anyway, I figure that any tricks or tools that I can use to help reduce this terrible waste of my brain cycles is probably a Good Thing. Soon to be listed among those Good Things, I think, will be Google Notebook.

Google Notebook screenshotGoogle Notebook is a combination online service and browser extension which makes keeping track of those good ideas pretty easy. Before I go on, though, do be aware that Notebook comes out of Google Labs and at this time should still be considered an "alpha" service (i.e. functionality and appearance could change at any time). That being said, though, it sure is convenient. On Firefox, my browser, it sets up a small tab in the lower right corner of the screen. When, in the course of my daily browsing of the Web, I uncover a thought-provoking concept, an idea for writing, or even a hint for a future product, I can click on that tab, select the text and or pictures of interest, and click on the "Add note" button. Notebook will even record where I found this tidbit.

All of these notes can be sorted into different notebooks (I have different ones for each of the above areas). They can be edited, added to, and deleted. You can share them with friends and colleagues. And the best thing of all is that, so long as I am connected, my notes are always with me. I don't have to worry about lugging along an extra paper notebook in addition to my computer. Heck, if you really need the dead-tree edition, you can even print out your notes for offline consideration.

There are a few features which are missing, which I think would make things even better. One minor one would be a time stamp for the note. Sometimes things make more sense in context. Yes, I could just add a time stamp myself, but the easier a tool is to use, the more likely I am to use it. The user interface for the full page site is a bit rough around the edges still, too, but I'm sure that will even out with time.

So, I recommend that you check out the possibilities. Notebook has extensions for both Firefox and IE under Windows XP, OS X, and Linux. Let me know what you think!

So, what tools have you found helpful in capturing your good ideas?

2 days. (2 days!? Ack!)

Friday, December 29, 2006

Partial Redemption

Computer supportA few days ago, I devoted a good portion of my post to ranting about the quality of customer support at my current hosting service, You can read the details in that post, but the short of it was that I couldn't access the configuration tools for one of my clients and the hosting company was being less than helpful in resolving the situation. The problem has since been solved. In my last missive to them, I made the suggestion that, since I couldn't access the control panel where it was currently located, perhaps they could move it to a different server. The next morning, the company took my suggestion and I was able to complete the initial set up of the CNP of Ohio competition registration. Keep an eye on the CNP of Ohio website for more information about the upcoming competition.

So, it was a happy ending, right? The customer got what they needed and I got to ride off into the sunset?

Not so fast.

Yes, the hosting company did finally respond to me and implement a solution. For that I will give them a partial redemption from my vitriol. The technical issue, though, was not the real problem here. I understand that, every once in a while, things just go wrong. It's no one's fault in particular. My problem lies in how I was treated. What follows are a few tips on how this whole situation could have been handled just a little better and have made me a whole heck of a lot more sanguine about recommending this company to future clients.

  1. If the only way you are going to accept support requests is through the Web, your interface must be clear and professional-looking. In the form with which I was working, one of my options was "Category" for which there were three options: "Emergency", "Not Listed", and "Site Down". Perhaps one or two other major areas might be appropriate? Don't even get me started on the part which asks for a "Sample URL". The whole thing felt like it had been designed for a different purpose and then shoe-horned to serve in this capacity.
  2. Make sure your response method is consistent. As I mentioned in the post, responses to my queries sometimes came through email, sometimes only on the support site, and sometimes through both. Don't make me wonder if you have responded.
  3. Don't tell me the problem is somewhere on my end and that I should just wait for a couple of hours to see if it fixes itself. That's not a real solution and it makes me feel like you are just trying to get rid of me. How about trying to open up a dialog to help me debug the situation from my end?
  4. Don't blow me off if I don't fill out your form correctly. Maybe this should be #1, because it really got me steamed. In this case, I had provided all of the necessary information in the body of the support request. If the support person had taken half a moment to read the message that I had typed up, he would have seen this. Instead, I felt even more like they were hoping that I would just go away.
  5. Solve my problem. Don't make me do it for you. The solution which I came up with doesn't take a degree in rocket surgery. I don't care who is at fault. All I know is that your service isn't working for me, through no fault of my own, and I don't know the first person other than you to contact in order to fix the problem.
Whew! Now I feel a little better.

On a somewhat related note, I started uploading the new Community Housing Network online donation system to their new secure website. Thus far, the transition is going smoothly. I've still got a way to go before I can give the hosting service,, an unqualified testimonial. So far, though, things look good and, as I mentioned before, for non-profits, you can't beat the price!

On a More Personal Note

I signed Lisa and I up to go on a VIP tour at Artrain USA. I recently learned about Artrain from Barb Shoffner, whom I met through Muriel Converse of our local SCORE chapter (isn't networking a wonderful thing?). The Artrain is, for lack of more poetic language, a mobile art museum, housed in a series of renovated 1940s passenger cars. It travels all over the country, from coast to coast not only bringing it's current exhibit, "Native Views: Influences of Modern Culture", but also revitalizing the local art scene and often starting a process of community renovation which lasts long after the Artrain pulls out of the station.

Barb told me about the VIP tours which are set aside for a limited number of visitors. The tours include a guide who will present information about the exhibit and point out the details of specific pieces. For Lisa and I, who spent part of our first date at the Toledo Art Museum, this is going to be a lot of fun! By the way, while donations are encouraged, the price of admission for this event? Free.

If you are going to be in Ann Arbor in January 2007, you might want to give them a call (734-747-8300) to find out more.

So, what fun events would you recommend in your community?

3 days.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A True Fan

Disney OrnamentSeth Godin has a short post today asking the question, "Would I buy the T-shirt?" By this he means, does your business inspire the kind of fans and fanaticism that would inspire the purchase of a t-shirt with your logo? If not, why not and how can you change?

Wow! What a question. I'm trying to think of the last thing which inspired me to buy a t-shirt (or other souvenir with a corporate logo). I'm wearing a sweatshirt from my trip to Alaska this summer. On our Christmas tree, we have ornaments from Disneyworld, and Cirque du Soleil. Probably the largest number of "t-shirt" purchases for me would be from the "Babylon 5" franchise.

So, what do these all have in common? What do they have that other television programs, travels and/or performances don't have?

Looking at them I can see one common thread. They each in their own way transported me to another existence. I saw sites which I had never before imagined. I experienced whole new viewpoints and ideas. I even discovered whole new areas of my own life which have colored my days since that time.

So, how do I put my own business in such rarefied company? How do I make my clients want to buy my t-shirt? I'll admit to being stumped right now on that one, but the question has opened up a whole new area for me to ponder. I wonder if Seth has any t-shirts!

4 days.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

This is Help?

Computer nightmareSo, as I mentioned yesterday, my big goal for the day was to get the CNP of Ohio contest registration feature up and running on the production server. Should only take an hour, I said. Usually only a few tweaks, I said.

Sometimes I'm such a Pollyanna.

The hosting service we are using for the CN website is, a budget hosting service that I myself use. The least expensive of their plans costs $70 per year and has most of the modern conveniences of a hosting service. To access and set up these facilities, you must use a feature called "CPanel". It's basically a control panel for websites. With it you can, among a myriad of other things, check stats, create new email addresses, and (most important to me in this case) set up MySQL databases.

Today, unfortunately, I couldn't access the CPanel site for the CNP of Ohio website. It's actually located on a different server than the actual server, so this only posed a problem for adding new features, it didn't mean that the production server itself was down. After a couple of hours of waiting, though, I decided that I needed to bring in, you guessed it, Customer Support.

Now, I realize that, being a budget service, they have to cut corners somewhere. To save money, they've chosen to have only web-based support. I've used it in the past and, while it does have a clunky interface, the folks there have always been responsive, usually getting back to me within the hour. I'm hoping that today is an exception and not a foreshadowing of things to come.

I placed my first ticket this morning around 11. At around 12 or so, I got a response back that everything was fixed. Great! Except it wasn't. I was still having the same problem. So, I went back to the now-closed ticket and re-opened it, letting the support folks know that there was still a problem. A few hours later I was told that the problem lay in the network and that I should just wait for a few hours. I might want to try a command called "traceroute" which for those who don't know, will print out the path that a network message takes as it finds its way from one computer to another on the network. If there is a problem, it will tell you where that's happening, too.

So, I waited another couple of hours, with similar results. So, I decided to try another help ticket. From my tests, it looked like there was a problem in a significant network node which meant that pretty much no one in the midwest was going to be finding this particular server. As a hosting service, it would behoove them to make sure this got cleared up. I thought I would just re-open the original ticket. This time, though, the ticket had been deleted entirely. All of my old tickets were there but that one.

Strange. OK, I'll just make a new one. Once again, I worked up the details, including a dump of the traceroute results. Off it went to the great and powerful Oz. A few more hours later and I got the message back that I had filled out the form incorrectly and to create a new ticket with the correct information. Guess which part of the form I got wrong? Nope! It was the field which called for an "Example URL". Apparently they didn't want the URL of the CPanel which was causing trouble, but rather the URL of the site about which I was asking the question. Obviously!

Don't even get me started on the response mechanisms -- sometimes response by email, sometimes only on the support website, sometimes in both -- consistency is apparently vastly overrated.

On a positive note, the work on the donations features for Community Housing Network are coming along nicely. I even managed to fire off a test transaction to (the front-end service which we are using to process credit card transactions).

More as the situation develops.

On a More Personal Note

I did manage to get our new cell phones set up today. Well, to be more accurate, I got them registered and turned on. It's probably going to take me about six months to really get the hang of this thing. My old phone did about one thing. It made phone calls, two if you count receiving calls. This new one does that, plus just about everything else except walk the dog (and I might be wrong on that -- I only just started reading the voluminous documentation). Still pretty exciting!

So, which hosting service do you use? Would you recommend their customer service?

5 days.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Back in the Saddle

Just a quick post tonight as it is getting close to my bedtime.

I've pretty much finished up the work on the CNP of Ohio contest registration form. It's all running on my test machine. Now I just need to upload, install and test it on the production server. This is always a pretty exciting and sometimes exceedingly frustrating part of any project for me. Inevitably, I will discover some minor issues which differ between the testing site and the production site. This leads to a bit more tweaking on the system and then back to the testing phase. If things are going smoothly, this rarely takes more than an hour or so. After all, I do attempt to make my testing server "look" as much like the production server as is reasonable. I mean, I'm not going to completely reload my system or anything, but I do at least try to get all of the directories in the same locations.

After I take care of that tomorrow morning, it is back to getting the donations facilities up and running for the Community Housing Network site. I think I now have all of the pieces to at least do the system building. Now we just need to nail down the details on the production server and we should make it with days to spare before the deadline.

On a More Personal Note
Perrysburg Christmas
Lisa and I just got back from our holiday travels. We were down in Texas visiting her family for most of a week. We then flew back early Christmas morning in order to go down to Perrysburg, Ohio for a big family Christmas with my Mom. The Perrysburg Christmas was a bit smaller than in previous years. We have had as many as thirteen or fourteen of us sitting around the table. This time, we were a comparatively manageable eight. Still my mom cooked as if there were an army showing up and I don't think a one of us wandered away from the table hungry.

We ate, talked, did puzzles, and, of course, opened presents. With two kids, five dogs (including a new puppy) and a cat, we had our share of mayhem. Still, we did experience occasional moments of peace and quiet. And, no matter what the atmosphere, we all had a lot of fun.

So, how did you spend your holidays?

6 days.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Of Gadgets and Songs (not)

OK, so I had written a nice little post about Google gadgets and such and a short bit about attending a fun holiday musical event, but then my browser crashed and I lost everything. So, it will have to wait until tomorrow, because it's late and I don't feel like trying to re-create the post right now.

When was the last time you wanted to defenestrate your computer?

9 days.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Challenges of Building Stuff

constructionMy business affords me a great job. I get to build things from pure thought-stuff. From the depths of my mind come the impulses which set colors swirling, text marching, and forms processing which are all part and parcel of making up a sophisticated website. I don't have to mine any raw materials, purchase nails, rivets, or other fasteners, nor do I risk developing blisters on my delicate hands. I don't remember the last time I broke a sweat working on my business.

That all being said, web developers such as myself do still have the occasional challenge. Even the simplest thing can blossom out of control into a morass of complex code and interdependent requirements that have me reaching for the aspirin (or a bottle -- of Coke).

For example, this evening I was whipping up what was supposed to be a quick tool for one of my clients, CNP of Ohio, Ltd. The goal was to allow them to accept online registrations and perform tracking on a contest that they'll be running in February. I figured that it would be a quick task. After all, I've done pretty much all of the pieces of the project before in one way or another. Cue the foreboding music, and the swirling dark clouds of the impending storm.

So, I set out, grabbing pieces of code and design from my libraries. In general, it went swimmingly, but every once in a while, I would do the coding equivalent of stubbing my toe. I would be missing a feature here, or a webpage there. I finished setting up the ability for the user to create an account and login. Then I remembered that they might want to change their password. Then I realized that they might forget their password and require a feature to deal with that. I set up a method to record their progress in the contest. Then I remembered that I have to deal with the situation where the user records something (which leads them to a confirmation page) and then hits reload. If you don't take the proper steps, that progress will be recorded twice.

This all does eventually get done, but it always surprises me how the smallest details can make the project take so much longer than originally planned.

Still, for all that (or maybe because of it) it is a great feeling to stand back, when the virtual dust has settled, to see the clockwork mechanism that I've created, humming along without a hitch.

So, what are the special challenges that your job presents?

10 days.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Life and Times of a Cavedweller

CavemanI mentioned a few days ago that things were looking pretty busy over the holidays. I count it my great good fortune that my business is picking up. In fact, just yesterday I got the final OK on another project referred to me through one of my Leadership Ann Arbor classmates, Jim Anderson of A.J. Boggs & Company. Of course, on top of that is the normal rush and bustle of Christmastime down in Texas with Lisa's family. I'm very fortunate that they are completely understanding of my working over the holiday. I've been holed up in my cave most of the day, cranking out Java code for U of M, debugging problems with the CNP of Ohio mailing list, and even writing an article or two.

The big news is that today was (functionally) my last day at University of Michigan. OK, yes, my countdown would indicate that December 31st is my last day, and my actual letter of resignation would say that it is January 3rd. It's all true. I had set December 31st as my last day. Unfortunately, U of M has a rule that you have to work your last day. That means that, since the U is closed from the 23rd through the 1st, I would lose my pay for the end of December. I didn't think that was cool, so my official last day is the 3rd (don't ask me why it isn't the 2nd, it doesn't make any sense to me either).

So, since it isn't terribly likely that I will get anything useful done at the U on the 3rd except turning in my keys and cleaning out my desk, today was really my last working day. At this point, I've pretty much worked through the melancholy. I'm ready to move on. I'm ready for the new chapter. I'm especially ready to clear my mental space of the old ways and start looking at how I want to organize this new adventure. I've got my 101 goals in one hand and my notebook of to-do lists in the other. Look out world!

So, where will you be spending the holidays?

11 days.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Waiting For JoAnn

Twas the night before ChristmasAs I mentioned last night, we're down in Texas to celebrate the holidays with Lisa's family. Right now we're waiting for her sister, JoAnn, to arrive from Austin. While we're waiting, I've been reflecting on the season.

I love the holidays. I especially love Christmas. I have loved it for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I used to start my daily countdown in about late September (sorry, Mom). Thinking back, it wasn't just about the presents (though I was as material as the next kid). It was everything. The decorations, the food, my grandparents visiting. I loved the smell of the real tree that we always had (complete with bubble-lights). Christmas carols, including the occasional family sing-a-long around the piano.

I remember making the funky little craft projects in grade school. Construction paper and cotton balls to make Santa. Popcorn strings. Loops of more construction paper to make chains for the tree. What could be more fun?

Most of all, I guess what made it fun was that at that time of my life, as with most kids, life was uncomplicated. Each moment was a surprise. Each Christmas special was the pinnacle of meaning and high art. The traditional reading of "The Night Before Christmas" was the prelude to a long night of trying to sleep which was summarily terminated at five in the morning (sorry, Dad).

I'll never be able to recapture that simplicity of youth, but I will continue to enjoy the holiday. My enjoyment will change as I do and evolve into something new each year. For now, I am glad that I have so many families to visit and so many celebrations to savor.

So, what are your favorite memories of the holiday season?

12 days.

I'm Dreaming of a Texas Christmas

Busy peopleWe just arrived in Texas to celebrate Christmas with Lisa's family. We're fortunate that our jobs are so mobile that we can largely accomplish them anywhere -- anywhere there's a wireless network anyway.

It's going to be a busy few days on the business front. I've still got a couple of days of U of M work to get done. Mainly tomorrow and half of Thursday -- after that, nothing until my last day on the third. The big stuff is happening with Cyber Data Solutions. My project with Community Housing Network is coming to a hard deadline. We've had a number of delays, so naturally things are down to the wire now. In the next ten days I will be setting up a donations facility and donor management database for them. I've got about half of the online donation interface working and I should be able to get the rest up and running by tomorrow night. My big worry is actually attaching the front end interface to the bank on the back end, so we can actually process the credit card transactions.

Add to these tasks a smattering of minor issues on other projects and the hustle and bustle of the holidays and you've got the recipe for a busy couple of weeks. Wish me luck!

So, what tasks do you have in the upcoming weeks?

13 days.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Not Getting Things Done

measuring timeI'm no expert on personal productivity, but I have at least learned to recognize a lack of it in myself and, with a little observation, have discovered certain behaviors which can prevent me from getting things done. What follows is my list. Yours may vary.

  1. Keeping it all in my head. I don't even like to think about the number of times I've gotten to the end of the day only to discover that I forgot to do some vital thing -- like call someone or pay a bill. It goes on a list or it doesn't get done.
  2. Multitasking. If I try to do two (or three) things at once. In general, it takes me longer than the total amount of time it takes to do them separately. There are very few exceptions to this. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is watching TV while riding the stationary bike. Even then, though, I think I get a better workout when I am fully focused on the exercise.
  3. Having a cluttered workspace. For me, a cluttered desk is the physical manifestation of multitasking. Each additional object takes up a small amount of my mental cycles. I'm at my best when the desk is clear.
  4. Overloading the "To Do" list. When I am working up my "to do" list for the day, I sometimes get over-ambitious and really pile on the tasks. The problem is, I then get discouraged that I can't get it all done. After that, it;s a short downhill slide into apathy and an afternoon of wasted time.
  5. Insufficient rest. I am a chronic night-owl. This wouldn't be a problem except that the rest of the world still wants me up bright and early. I can get by with only five hours of sleep, but too much of that and the best that I can hope for is a day of nodding off at my desk. The worst is that this can lead me directly to migraine-town, where I can't even beg to die.
  6. Irregular schedule. I love meeting with people and going to networking events. The difficulty arises when it chops up my day into small chunks of 30-60 minutes of usable work time. I barely have the chance to get into "the zone" before I have to run off to my next event.
I'll be fighting these pitfalls even more now that I'm going off on my own. I've been reading the books and blog posts on how to improve my chances at success, but I fear I will be fighting these battles periodically for a long time to come. I guess, though, that we all have our blind spots and our Achilles heels. At least I've started the process of identifying mine. Next, I'll need to find some ways to counteract them.

Any advice would be appreciated.

So, what keeps you from getting things done?

14 days.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

On Being A Teacher

Seth Godin had an interesting post tonight. He was talking about dealing with the naive prospect for your business. He pointed out that some businesses will experience this more than others and provided some tips on how to deal with these prospects.

I've had some experience with naive clients. Not all of them, and certainly not stupid by any means, just uninformed as to what exactly I can provide for them. My work is fairly technical. Web development, for those in the know, is no more complicated, really, than writing a document using a word processor. To those outside our world, though, it is more akin to the Dark Arts.

So, how do I deal with the naive client or prospect? First and foremost, as Seth mentions in his list, I avoid the use of jargon. If I use a single three-letter acronym, I'm almost guaranteed to lose the person with whom I am chatting. Believe it or not, the word "blog" is often enough, even, to set the average neophyte on the run.

Second, I try to provide very short, non-technical analogies. In general, I try to liken anything that I describe to some sort of real-world equivalent. Of course, the analogy isn't always accurate, but I would rather they understand that a "blog" is a public online journal first. Later I can explain all of the other myriad possibilities which it offers. Education by a process of successive approximation.

Third, I try to inject a little fun. Do you remember kindergarten? We learned a lot then, but most of it was disguised as play. I try to tell a story or two, especially if the main character is someone with whom my audience can identify. Heck, telling people I meet that I'm the "international superhero known as the Webmaster" is designed to make them laugh and help them feel more comfortable around me. After all, I'm here to "rescue" lost souls, right?

I guess the bottom line is to put yourself in their shoes. We've all been confronted by a highly technical and/or confusing topic in our life. Remember what that felt like, and you are more likely to show compassion for those who are lost in your neck of the woods.

So, how would you describe what you do so that I would understand?

15 days.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Breaking Through

board breakingOur Karate school had a board breaking event today. Professor Hafner called it the "Smash All Fears" Fundraiser for the Ann Arbor Homeless Shelter. Basically, participants made a donation and, in return got the chance to break a board (or a slab of concrete). The idea was to make the board represent some limiting fear or belief in your life.

Before I go any further, one warning: Please do not try board breaking unless you are with an experienced coach. Doing things incorrectly will very likely lead to injury. Imagine willingly slamming your hand into a brick wall with all your strength and you'll get some idea of the possible results.

Some of the people who participated were doing this for the first time. Heck, some of them weren't even in the martial arts! We had several moms and dads, sometimes at the urging of their children, getting out on the floor and giving it a whack. I'll tell you, there is something truly amazing about watching someone's face the first time they break. I saw it today on five-year-old children and 60-year-old grandmothers. They suddenly realize that, despite their fears -- of failure or pain or disaster -- they did this thing which seemed impossible. That look of personal power shone through in their eyes and, as one of the coaches for the event, I felt a tremendous rush just to be a part of that moment.

I've broken many times in the past myself, the most recent was last year, when my Karate Master, Professor Hafner, had me break five 1-inch concrete slabs. The amazing thing I learned in that moment was that I have the power of focus, to such an extent that, for me, the obstacle ceases to exist. To me, breaking through those slabs was no more difficult than pushing my hand through the air. My challenge, and my excitement, is to apply that same focus to my goals in the rest of my life. What could I achieve??

One of my favorite quotes is by Marianne Williamson and it begins:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.
On a day like today I understand that fear, and I am ready to push beyond it.

So, what experience have you had which uncovered your fear that you are "powerful beyond measure"?

16 days.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Multi-tasking is Bad

Multitasking guyThrough circuitous routes I found myself reading a delightful blog called "Brazen Careerist" by Penelope Strunk. This is one I'll definitely be adding to my Google Reader list. The post I first read was about time management in a multi-tasking world. Penelope offers ten tips on how to be more effective with our time even as technology continues to place greater and greater demands on us.

I loved tip #2 -- Admit multitasking is bad. This one goes right to the heart of some of my personal time management challenges. I've tried to convince myself in the past that I could just quickly check my email in the middle of my programming time, or watch TV while answering my email, or play a quick game of solitaire while waiting for a long upload to complete. Looking back, though, trying to do two things at once, just made things take a lot longer than if I had just done them sequentially (or not at all, in the case of the TV thing). I would have been much better off focusing my attention wholly on the one task at hand (and making sure that this task is a priority).

So, this is something that I want to work on, as I move more into my new career as a self-employed business owner. Wish me luck. Old habits die hard.

So, which of the ten tips speaks most clearly to you?

17 days.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Leadership Ann Arbor: Month 2

Yesterday was our second day of our Leadership Ann Arbor class. As a part of this class, around 50 of us get together on the second Wednesday of each month to learn about some aspect of Ann Arbor and its surrounding areas. Last month we had "Economic Development" day. What a skull-buster! This month was "Community Service" day.

Unlike last month, where we all piled into a big bus and drove all over, this month we were broken up into cars. Pairs of cars were assigned five different charitable organizations (out of a group of eleven) to visit and learn about. Oh, and there were a few others who sent representatives to speak to us at lunch. Our group visited the American Cancer Society (where the women whooped the men in a quiz about cancer myths), the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the Womens Center of Southeast Michigan, and Ronald McDonald House.

Unfortunately, all of the charities are hurting this year, what with the difficult economic times we've been having in Michigan. That wasn't too much of a surprise. Still, they somehow manage to achieve their goals. These people have a tremendous passion for what they do and they move mountains to take care of their constituents.

What impressed me, and made me pretty proud to be living in this town, was finding out just how generous the folks living in Ann Arbor can be. Heidi Grix, Director of Development fLonni Vitale of Habitat for Humanityor the Washtenaw County chapter of the American Red Cross told us that after hurricane Katrina, over 1400 people from our area showed up to volunteer their time and effort. Lonni Vitale of the local Habitat for Humanity (pictured) told us that they often have enough volunteers that they could put up twice as many houses as they currently do, if only they were able to raise enough money to pay for that much construction (and especially the land upon which it would take place).

So, if you are looking for a worthwhile venture to support, you shouldn't have to look far. I'm sure other locations are similar to Washtenaw and have hundreds, if not thousands of nonprofit and charitable organizations which could use your help.

Quick bit of trivia: The American Red Cross has a congressional mandate to provide two services. The first is disaster relief. What is the other? Hint: It isn't blood donation!

18 days.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

On Being a Class Act

Cast of 'A Class Act'I've been reading Jack Canfield's Success Principles, lately. Most of the stuff in there I've read before in one place or another, but it's nice to have it all gathered into one book. The repetition of the information never hurts, either.

In the section I am currently reading, he talks about being a "class act". Everyone would prefer to be around, work for, or work with a class act. We can all recognize these people. They always live up to their highest ideals. They help others to achieve their goals. They never gossip nor criticize in an inappropriate way. A class act sets the standard by her actions and then encourages us all to live up to that standard.

I wish we had more class acts in the public eye. I would love it if, going through the check out line, I could read headlines about the good things that our public figures have achieved, rather than their imperfections and peccadilloes. Sure, these people aren't perfect, but it may be a measure of our own lack that we focus on these imperfections as opposed to the good that they have tried to achieve.

Don't get me wrong, betrayal of the public trust should be exposed, but I'm not sure that it really uplifts my life to know the latest about Brad and Jen's romantic relationships.

So, who, whether on a local or global level, do you think merits the label "Class Act"?

19 days.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Tell Me a Story

Story timeI was reading Seth Godin's blog this evening. He made some intriguing comments about "mythic" brands. These are powerful brands which connect with people on almost a spiritual level and often have a story associated with them.

This fits right in with what I learned first in the Certified Networker training program. When you are telling people about your business or your brand, whether you have a minute or an hour, you must tell them a story. No one cares that you have features A, B, and C which you support or that you specialize in selling framjantz capacitors. What they really want to know is how those framjantz capacitors made someones life better (especially someone with whom they can identify closely).

Personally, I'm not doing too bad with the storytelling. I do think I should work on that second part (about making an emotional or spiritual connection). I think that this is what will take my brand from an interesting curiosity to a compelling need.

So, what's your story?

20 days.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Customer Service Nightmare: What Am I Buying?

TiVo LogoIn several business coaching classes and books, I have heard and read that, to be successful in business, you must understand exactly what it is that you are selling. This is to be distinguished from your product. For example, a limousine service isn't selling transportation to an event. It is selling convenience, luxury, and a trouble-free evening out on the town.

I recently dealt with a company of which some of you may have heard: TiVo. Lisa and I had decided to purchase a TiVo box for my parents for Christmas. We were heading up to their place the second weekend in December to celebrate the holidays with them. I placed my order online on the Friday after Thanksgiving (two weeks prior to our departure). My credit card was charged and I received an acknowledgement of my order via email.

Then I heard nothing. No notice of shipment. No information that it would be late. Nothing.

Finally, on Wednesday evening, I thought I would just quickly check online to see what the status of the order was. Guess what? I couldn't check. There was no way to check the status of the order. OK, first rule. If you can order something online, you should be able to check its status online, too. So, I resigned myself to calling TiVo directly.

Those of you who remember my difficulties dealing with Sears will recognize that the procedures at TiVo were born of the same litter. I called the sales number. After wending my way through some less-than-self-explanatory voicemail options, I was able to speak with a human being. Next rule. If you require me to enter a phone number/order number/credit card number/address, etc as a part of the voicemail process, *don't* ask me again when the human gets on the line.

Apparently, this gentleman was not really interested in speaking with me, because immediately after I explained the situation (that I wanted to know the status of my order) he told me he couldn't help me and that I had to call Customer Service. He then gave me the number and wished me a nice day. Next rule. If you aren't the person to whom I should be speaking, give me their number, but also transfer me to them. Don't make me go through voicemail hell again.

So I called up Customer Service. Again I went through voicemail and had to enter phone numbers/addresses/etc. Then I was to be transferred to "an agent". I then proceeded to wait for forty-five minutes for someone to answer the phone before I hung up. Next rule. If you are going to make someone wait, at least tell them how many people are in front of them on a periodic basis -- unless you are trying to make them lose all hope.

So I called back Sales (since there at least I had someone to talk with). This time I took a different path through voicemail and, lo and behold (after entering my phone number/address/etc), I was speaking with Customer Service! I don't know how I got there, but I did. Now this person seemed bemused that I would want to know the status of my order and really couldn't help me with that so escalated me to his supervisor, a delightful young woman by the name of Nikita. She finally had the clearance to discover that the unit I had ordered was on back order, but that it should go out on Friday. I had ordered it with 4 to 6 day delivery (those are business days) and I expressed my concern that it wouldn't arrive in time. Would it be possible to change my shipping method? At this point I was willing to actually pay the difference just to make sure it got there on time.

"I'm sorry, sir. There is no way for us to change that once it is in the system. Not even my supervisor can change that. But, don't worry, I'm sure that it will there on time." Next rule. Don't patronize me. Give me a solution.

To reassure you, the unit did arrive on time (Tuesday morning, to be exact). As a gift, it was well-received. TiVo might even see this as a success. From my viewpoint, they failed in their job. As an online retailer, their job is more than just delivering the goods. It also has to be delivering confidence and reassurance that the goods will be there when they say they will and good communication (and *real* solutions) when they won't.

Next time? I'll go to Best Buy.

So, do you have any holiday Customer Service nightmares?

21 days.

Good Things: Free Hosting

Angel spreadnig good newsQuick post tonight.

I just got a message from a coworker at U of M. He let out the news that his hosting service, DreamHost, is offering free hosting to 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. If you are a member of such an organization or work with one in some capacity, you might want to pass along this information. I did a little research on DreamHost's quality of service and, in general, it seems to be pretty good. Of course, you should do your homework, but this sounds like it could be pretty valuable all around.

So, to which nonprofit organization would you pass this along?

22 days.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Best Things: Steam Tunnels

steam tunnelI've mentioned that I've tried to come up with good ways to connect with people no matter where I meet them. I've found that asking them the question "What's the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?" is a great way to get them talking and to find out who they are.

For example, this afternoon I was meeting a friend at a local coffee shop. I don't actually drink coffee, but they usually have a passable hot cider. While waiting to get my cider hotted up, I asked the young gentleman behind the steamer about the best thing in his week.

He thought about it for a few moments and said "I got to see the steam tunnels under the University." (Quick note to those unfamiliar with the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus, steam tunnels criss-cross the entire area. Supposedly you can walk through them from one side of campus to the other without seeing daylight at all).

"Wow! So you went on a tour or something?"

"No, I just kept trying grates until I found an open one."

"Well, I guess it's good that you didn't get caught."

"Yeah. I heard an alarm at one point, so I ran. But now I can cross #42 off my list of lifetime goals!"

Sounds like this guy is a listmaker, too. I just hope his list doesn't land him in front of a judge someday!

So what is on your list of lifetime goals?

26 days.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bothered and Bewildered

Straight from the "I Just Don't Get It" file.

I've spent a good chunk of time over the last couple of days trying to figure out a bug in the new scripts for the site. One of the new features that Jake wanted this year was an area where he could upload files for his users that would be protected by the same subscription model which protects the rest of the site. This I managed to do.

He has the ability to upload files and give them a tag which will determine where his users find the files. In this case he either tags it as a "Bracket" file (such as a single-elimination competition bracket -- think about the NCAA Basketball play-off brackets and you'll get the idea) or a "Normal" file, which could be anything else -- a schedule of events, a map to a location, or even his world-famous recipe for barbecue ribs.

The problem is, those tags weren't assigning themselves correctly when he used the system.

I checked and double-checked my code. I verified that he was following the correct procedure. I even followed the exact same steps as he did, including using the same files in the same order. It always worked for me. It continued to fail for him. I finally came up with a work-around which avoids the situation entirely. It solves the immediate issue, but, as a programmer, it is vastly unsatisfying.

Here's the rub: Unless I can actually get my hands on his particular machine, I may never solve the problem. Computers have become so complex and the individual software components can interact in such odd and occasionally unexpected ways, that to exactly duplicate his situation is an exercise in futility. Unfortunately, without that exact duplication, I can only approximate the interacting systems involved. Most of the time this is sufficient, but sometimes you just have to go to the source.

So, when was the last time you said "Huh, that should have worked" at your job?

27 days.

Working from Home

Luke and Ray in teh cat condoFor a number of years now I've done most of my work from home. Of course, from the start, the time I've put in on my business, Cyber Data Solutions , has been from the home office. In recent years, though, even my University of Michigan work has been largely done from the confines of my home.

Of course, as with most things, I've discovered both the good and bad aspects of this situation. On the good side, I can pretty much work whenever I want. I can schlub around in my sweats and slippers all morning and take a break in the middle of the afternoon to get in a workout. I get to arrange and decorate my office exactly the way I want it -- the way that helps me to be my most productive. As if this weren't cool enough, a little over a year ago, my lovely wife's job shifted. From that point on, she, too, was able to work from home. I'll have to admit that it's more than a little wonderful to be able to share my breakfasts and lunch hour and the occasional afternoon break with her -- to hear all about the challenges of her day.

Now, before you start to think that it's all buttercups and warm Spring days, working from home does have its downside, too. I have to provide and maintain all of the equipment in the office. I occasionally have a cat or two who think that the keyboard is the perfect place to take a nap, no matter how many times I shoo them out. Working from home can also lead to a certain level of professional isolation. I have to make a much greater effort now to maintain contact with my peers.

Of course, the biggest disadvantage, bar none is...

... the job is always there. From the moment I wake up in the morning to the last key-click before I retire at night, I hear the siren call of the work. This is Lisa's major concern about me going off on my own to focus on my business -- that the business will consume me. I can't say that it isn't a valid concern. Heck, after Lisa went to bed, I sat down "just to check my email". Two hours, ten emails, two web scripts and the beginnings of a proposal later, I'm still here sitting at the desk.

Fortunately, I'm still loving what I do -- right now. I guess I'd better re-read my copy of The E-Myth Revisited before I get too much farther into this adventure.

So, do you work from home? How do you keep the job from taking over?

27 days.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

A New Season

Christmas cookiesToday we made cookies.

For me this is the start of the Christmas holiday season. My mom comes up from Toledo and we spend many hours baking batches of cookies. Cut-outs, almond crescents, thumbprint cookies, plus new ones every year (this year Lisa made some mint chocolate cookies that she found in the American Airlines inflight magazine). By the end of the day, we have six or eight different kinds of cookie all ready for our enjoyment over the next several weeks.

In other seasonal news, I've almost completed my first post-decision project. My friend John "Jake" Jaksetic has a website devoted to high school wrestling in northwest Ohio. He's created a site which allows his subscribers to search for the records of just about any student or school in the area. A lot of people were pretty excited about the site last year, so this year he had me put a little spit and polish on the system to make it that much more cool. If you are into the high school wrestling scene you should really check it out.

So, what sports do you follow or what's your favorite Christmas cookie?

29 days.